09 February 2009
"Arise, fair sun...!"
The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet has opened its three-week run, and I am on our first sincere day off (during the rehearsal/development process, no day off is truly spent "off"). I write to you now, Dear Reader, from my super-secret Astorian lair, where I will spend the next twenty-four hours in blissful avoidance of hemp rope and hard lumber. I love our set, but she is a harsh mistress.
How shall I begin to tell you of our process? Well, I'll start with the product by saying that this is the happiest I've been with a Zuppa del Giorno show in years. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's as effective as Silent Lives, nor as consistently funny as Legal Snarls, but it is a good, funny, heartfelt show that audiences seem to enjoy. I've grown accustomed to Zuppa shows being very reliant upon audience -- they're all broad comedy, and if we don't grab you, then we don't have you. TVNPCoR&J is no exception, but this time we have the benefit of a script and we're working with a story everyone knows to one extent or another, so it's easier to keep the audience even when a couple of jokes don't land. And we've had great audiences so far! Sunday was by far our smallest (and toughest) house so far, with only twenty or so, spaced out both is seating and in energy, it seemed. The rest were great; big audiences with lots of energy to contribute to the party. May the trend continue!
As it so often happens with the Zuppa shows, our process was varied and anti-linear. So many people contribute so many things, and everything has such equitable value that we can sometimes dissolve into a bit of confusion. David calls this "committing to the chaos," and it sometimes makes me want to tear his ears off, but he has a point. To a point. Whether it's order or chaos, Zuppa's process is inclusive and positive, and I appreciate it for that. This time around was particularly zesty. We were working with three directors and a fight choreographer, essentially. One director can't hear so well, one can't communicate in English so well, the third was only there for short periods and was trained in a different style of theatre altogether, so really it's kind of an accomplishment that we got a cohesive show of any shape to its feet, much less one that runs as well as this. There were many other scary/insensible moments and factors, but this is all just to say that I didn't come here to complain -- as with any show, there were points at which I thought, "Hang it up, all of it. I'm going to be a goat farmer in the east Andes."
The script went through various revisions. David did an initial cutting that he decided was just too long for the comedy we were trying to build. He suggested we choose lines that were especially important to us and feel free to improvise around those . . . which is a cool idea, but a little complex in practice. We were already improvising scenes based on the scenario set forth in the text, and reading the scenes straight, but to do the two together in the moment takes a particular genius, the first step of which would be (in my opinion) to know the text inside and out. We didn't yet. So eventually, David did another cutting, and we modified that through petition. (I want to keep, "Then I defy you, stars"; we can lose, "The fee simple? O simple!") For a while there, I found myself feeling heretical, slicing into the scansion as such, but eventually it became clear that what we were creating was going to be mongrel Shakespeare. After all, some of the text would be improvised, and some would even be spoken in Italian. Our priorities were sense first, then humor -- the music would have to be found in the spaces between.
An early rule we set, however, plays to our advantage: Romeo and Juliet's scenes together are whole, and wholly the original text. For a stretch it seemed we might have to make cuts to the balcony scene. It is, under the most formal conditions, like a mini-play inserted into the larger (making yet another case for Midsummer's being a parody companion piece to R&J), and Shakespeare had good reasons for giving everyone an act break and a chance to buy a few walnuts just before it. We did not have such a luxury -- our one intermission was resolutely set between Tybalt's death and Juliet's "gallop apace, ye fiery steeds" -- so for a time the scene was set on the carving block. Fortunately, we gained a sense of our style just in time to save the playlet. We chose early on to have Juliet and her Romeo speak the original text, as an indicator of their love and to distinguish them from what we assumed every other character would be doing at the time (that is, improvising dialogue left and right). Though we eventually decided it was best to have everyone speak mostly from the script, this early rule was somewhat prescient. By making the lovers clowns in a world of commedia dell'arte characters, we automatically made them a different pace and energy altogether. Commedia characters address the audience, but aren't ruled by them, whereas clowns have needs to ask permission, and must take even more sensitive cues from their audiences than intuiting what will make them laugh. It's as though the commedia characters are adults, enthusiastically sharing their argument with the audience, whereas the clowns are children, checking in with their parents to make sure they are pleased and eager to share with them each new discovery.
This has been the hardest work for me: Being, as a clown. I've done clown work for a few years now, but silently, and I wouldn't say it's my forte. Heather's much, much more natural with it than I. She has only to look at the audience, and they know everything she's feeling and thinking. I'm more calculating, less open, and am easily sucked into the rampant, frenetic energy of my fellow performers -- it's what I'm used to, I'm good at it and it gets laughs. But it isn't nearly as honest, vulnerable or interesting, frankly. I can hit the rhythms precisely, and get a laugh, but there's nothing precise about the clown. He is too present, too young to be precise, and that is part of his appeal. It works beautifully for this story, but it has been throughout an effort for me to make it work. (In some ways, of course, this is appropriate -- Romeo gets sucked into his environment and its violence, and spends a lot of his time trying to "make it work.") The most helpful note to me in this regard, a rather eleventh-hour one at that, was to think of Romeo as a dog, innocent, loyal and incapable of seeing past the next moment. Since I sometimes feel like a reincarnated dog, in both helpful and less-helpful ways, this resonates for me.
As if this work to "relax" in my work (oh yes -- many's the time that "relax" was my note for a scene, and not one but three directors almost got their respective ears torn off) weren't enough, hey: IT'S SHAKESPEARE. It is, to be perfectly honest, in spite of my abiding love of it, and four Shakespeare plays on my resume, my very first lead Shakespeare role ever. In fact, prior to this, my career in Shakespeare was particularly notable for playing roles that would just barely qualify as speaking ones: Philostrate in Midsummer's, Ned Poins in Henry IV 1 and Much Ado, the ONE messenger who speaks. So this was both great and terrible, and I've done it with no resident Shakespeare director, really. Some may be horrified by my interpretations, but I think I've done all right. I read up, and reviewed notes, and generally made the text a particular priority even at times when it seemed not to be one to others. It's beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, and I hope I'm doing it some small justice.
So through much trial-and-error, "finding the game" of the scene, improvisation, a little text analysis, collaborative gag making and general mayhem, we have made what I would describe as a very lively, very youthful cross-pollination of commedia dell'arte, clown, screwball and even a bit of Shakespeare. It's good fun and, I believe, loyal to the spirit of the original, for all we can know about it. When I read the play now, I can hardly believe it hasn't been played more comically more often. Even after the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, the keening is so young, so naive in its way, I can easily imagine the rabble of Shakespeare's time eating it up with spoons as they chuckled in melancholic empathy. Friend John feels that the pallet is too heavily laid with comedy to prepare the audience for any of the tragedy, but I affectionately disagree. This is how life feels to me more often than not. We're all trying to live out a joyful comedy, especially in the face of tragedy, and innocence makes us weep just as passion makes us laugh. My feelings turn on a dime as our play's do.
I'm glad to have it up at last, and I'm proud of our work for what it hoped to be, and what it became. And who knows what it will yet become?